Benjamin Duane (Ben) Stewart provided leadership, vision, and enthusiasm that were vital to the development of Alaska’s minerals industry. As Territorial Mines Inspector beginning in 1919 and Commissioner of Mines from 1935 to 1949, Ben Stewart worked tirelessly, and with notable success, to support the search for and development of valuable mineral deposits throughout Alaska.
As Alaska’s Commissioner of Mines, Ben Stewart founded the Territorial Department of Mines, establishing criteria and programs for recruiting top-level geologists and mining engineers to work in the Department. He established a public reference library of geological, mining, and historical mineral publications and reports for use by miners, prospectors, investors, and legislators. During World War II, information in the Department’s library contributed to development of coal mines to supply Alaska’s military installations. Later, information in the library helped establish the U.S. Navy Petroleum Reserves in Alaska and contributed to the development of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.
Beginning in 1927, Ben Stewart coordinated discussions with Russian mining executives pertaining to Arctic and sub-Arctic mining technology. As a result of these contacts, a number of experienced Alaskan mining engineers were given contracts to bring their technology to Far East Russian mining areas.
From 1919 until 1941, Ben was also ex-officio Labor Commissioner for Alaska and in this capacity promoted its first labor safety legislation. Beginning in 1922, he also simultaneously represented the U.S. Bureau of Mines as its Supervising Mining Engineer in Alaska and the U.S. Geological Survey in matters dealing with conservation and mineral development in the Territory.
Ben Stewart retired from government service in 1949, but his work was not done. At Alaska’s State Constitutional Convention in 1955 and 1956, Ben served on the Natural Resources Committee that developed Article VIII of the State Constitution, establishing the policy that Alaska will “encourage the settlement of its land and the development of its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest.” This constitutional policy continues to guide Alaska’s state government in support of mineral development.
Ben Stewart was a man of impeccable professional integrity. To avoid any possible conflict of interest, he never owned any interest in mining companies or properties anywhere. Employees in the Mines Department were strongly discouraged from profiting from information gained in the course of their work.
Ben graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in mining engineering in 1902 and arrived in Alaska Territory in 1910, a true pioneer. Before entering government service, he was a successful mine engineer and consultant from 1908 to 1919.
In 1977, the highest peak on Douglas Island near Juneau was named Mount Ben Stewart, recognizing Ben’s “preeminence and distinction in his field in the history of mining activity in Alaska.”